Saturday, April 7, 2018

We Love Wizardry LP review

The first time I learned about Wizardry was from a review on Game Pro magazine for the NES version. I was fascinated by the secrets and the winding corridors shown in the maps. I begged to have this game for Christmas and enjoyed it fully. My friend Gabriel, who was the only other person that I knew that played RPGs, hated it immediately however when he tried it and bumped into walls. He thought that the "ouch!" messages were silly. Even though I have completed  it many times (I still have my cartridge) my interest has shifted from the gameplay itself to its peculiar art and music. When I tried the primitive original version from the Interplay collection I didn't get the same magic and immersion from the Nintendo incarnations. The custom-made Baroque music fitted like a glove and it was exciting and charming. My favorites were the title theme, the battle theme that never became old and the very soothing camp music. For many years I had to make do with MIDI versions to listen, but on the Napster era I came across some few seconds, a partial download, from the title theme majestically orchestrated. At the time I did not know where this came from, but now I know it is from the official version released by the composer for retail sale on LP, CD and cassette. Its title: We Love Wizardry.

And of course we do. So much so, that it is a very hard soundtrack to find. Not only was a Japan-only release, making it hard to come across it for starters, but it is also an expensive one. CDs, from what I have seen, start at $100 (used) and could comfortably go for $200 (still used). LPs go even higher, but I have seen a recent tendency to ask more for the CD version. As one would expect a better sleeve + media condition notches even higher prices. My guess is that people do not want to let go off their copies.

In the last couple of years I spent my time waiting for publications on eBay and Discogs or that someone might inadvertently ask for a lower price. I was willing to go for it regardless of the format. Or maybe, with the vinyl revival and the very recent interest in videogame music, a re-release. The master had to exist somewhere, didn't it? For all the We Love Wizardry proclamations, the affection paradoxically doesn't seem to be widespread enough to merit. Even more popular titles, namely Dragon Quest, have not seen their existing soundtracks re-released, so what chance was there? When I felt I had waited long enough and that any change to the status quo was not forthcoming, I decided to bite the bullet.

Now, I'm interested in the music itself and the physical experience of an LP if it came to that. I try to avoid being an actual collector because I really don't want anything and everything, it is too much of a distraction and an expensive one. A very few, well-chosen titles, as I have said before, suffice for me. We Love Wizardry happens to be one of those. I had been eyeing a long published vinyl offer on Discogs for $150. When one day it vanished, I vowed that I would take the next opportunity and it came back last January at just that price. By this time I had the resources, but it didn't make it any easier forking so much dough on just one LP. Went for it. This itch had to be scratched and it seems this will be the most expensive record I will ever buy.

What I bought what described as NM in both media and sleeve. The seller was efficient in processing my order and I made sure to ask him to put, if possible, the record outside of the sleeve and in a double box for better protection. He said no problem. Then came the scary wait. I opted for the most expensive, registered airmail, but it didn't seem to have an impact on shipping time. It came from Japan in around five weeks and by this time I was expecting the package to be partly torn, crushed and generally mangled for all that transit and handling. I should have asked for FedEx.

However, when I finally got the package I was surprised that the contents had not been damaged in the least. The cardboard had some few bumps and scuffs and looked as if it had been run over by a motorcycle tire on one side, but held. No double box, but the record was indeed packaged separately and held firmly. Both record and sleeve combo were in a sealed plastic (Mylar?) outer sleeve. The record sleeve itself was a sight to behold. Despite its 30 years of existence, it looked as if it had been printed last week all smooth and shiny. Who knows how many people owned and lovingly cared for it all these years.

My copy also came with its original obi sash and insert. The insert was described as having a few stains and I believe that this helped me pricewise. I knew from a Japan trip episode from Nate Goyer's "The Vinyl Guide" podcast that record dealers over there generally are very conservative with their gradings and that any minute imperfection impacts the price. Once more, I believe that with my copy this was the case. The scores for all the tracks are included. I cannot read music but it's nice to have it for archival purposes (yeah). There appears to be an official sticker (hype? separate?) but I knew that this one wasn't included. In a way I'm glad it didn't because its inclusion would have meant an even greater expenditure and I wasn't about to stick it somewhere. It would have been nice, for completion's sake, but that's still an extra. Would I buy it if I saw it sold separately? How much would I be willing to pay for it? I don't know, maybe $20 or up to $40. I'm very happy with what I already got. Music, record condition and, if possible, sleeve condition was what I going for.

Originally I intended to listen to it right away but since Lent was coming I thought to defer the first listening for after Easter. I thought that it would be a good thing, in addition to others, to offer God for the season. As you can see, I was melting for it, but God takes the top spot. It was a shame to finally unpack such beauty. Would I be able to take as good care for my record as others had done? My. At the very least I could make a digital copy for the ages, pack everything in a Groove Vinyl oversized protective sleeve and keep it out of the sun. For a brief moment I considered not playing it at all and having it for display-only, but discarded the idea as extravagant as I didn't have the wall space anyway. Using gloves to handle my $150 was not that far-fetched however.

The music for this title lives in a weird limbo between chiptune and real-life performance as it is generated by high-end synthesizers. I wish we would have gotten some real instruments playing (a very unlikely occurrence for any soundtrack of the era other than Dragon Quest), but I am very thankful that they didn't just record the raw chiptune output. Had that last been the case, I would have certainly not bothered at all with the soundtrack. Another big plus is that the composer takes the opportunity to explore more in each track than just giving us the same old pieces we have already heard a million times. These two factors, along with the catchy underlying melodies, are what makes this one a standout musically speaking. There is now more power, there is more ebb and flow.

The sound quality is clear but a bit clicky which is something to be expected for its age, but not distracting. No loud pops.

All the tracks are extended with a bit of new material added beyond the point where you expect each to loop. About 30 extra seconds for each track.

Here are some brief impressions for some of the tracks:

The title theme is grander, more solemn and darker than the original and now reminds me of Handel's sarabande.

The castle theme is merry and makes a picture a cobbled medieval town on market day.

The adventurer's inn feels just what a place of relaxation and restoration should sound like.

Boltac's is the closest to the NES version.

In Gilgamesh's tavern there is a surprising entrance of a clavichord followed right away by a passage that reminds me of West Side Story.

The Temple theme sounds like a church hymn and is very effective in giving the sense of sacredness. The organ for this one however feels saturated. Maybe because it's the last track from side A.

The town outskirts music doesn't resist quoting a well-known circus theme.

If there is a theme that I like best in its original NES version, it is the Dungeon. As with many of the rest, it is now darker and foreboding. However, for this one, this makes it lose focus on the already effective minimalist melody. The one here, makes me feel as if I were walking on the edge of a chasm.

The Camp theme still remains sweetness.

The very small jingle that signals an encounter isn't included. The battle theme for its part is transformed from the intimate dungeon fight to what feels a very expansive and cinematic pitched battle where vast numbers of opponents are dealing and receiving death all around the listener. It is my belief that this one is one of the few baroque battle themes in gaming and whatever its rivals it is a fine example.

The LP finishes with that victory theme which, of all the music from Wizardry, is the one one gets to listen the least. In addition it is, if I may, not that great. As a result, it doesn't quite on par with the rest of the music in terms of familiarity and enjoyment which makes the soundtrack as a whole end a bit on the downside.

The Wizardry series doesn't stop with the first title We Love Wizardry/Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. There were other releases and soundtracks to match by the same composer. Is it the future for me to get those as well? By the looks of it, all these other soundtrack releases were published as CD only and while still rare and expensive, appear as more affordable and a bit easier to find than We Love Wizardry. There was a box-set release a long while ago and I seriously thought about getting everything in one fell swoop through a reseller at Amazon, but it turned out existing offers were (and still are) outrageously expensive as this one has the aggravating characteristic of being a limited release. Individual titles might work for me: Legacy is the highest rated; owned and loved Heart of the Maelstrom for the SNES; I may eventually buy a used Nintendo copy of Knight of Diamonds which I never had. So, individual CD purchases may be in the horizon.

For yourself, under which conditions would I recommend you get We Love Wizardry? As I see it, get it if you fit under any of the following: a) you are a hard-core collector and have the purchasing power; b) you love Wizardry/its music and can cut other outlays to make up for the expenditure; c) have some special interest such as reviewing it for a podcast. For the rest, and I would suggest that you first go out and buy the titles that really interest you and still hold on for the possibility of a re-release, however tenuous. I'm inclined to believe that it will never happen, but who knows? Copies from the 80s can still be bought, some way or other, the problem is their price. In the end, if you ever get hold of of one, I believe you will not regret it for its musical qualities.

4 stars

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Roosevelt: superhero

If there ever was a real life, flesh-and-blood superhero, this has to have been Theodore Roosevelt. Here's why think so:

  • Turned himself from a weakling to a muscular powerhouse
  • Beat asthma
  • Saved a tramp from the streets in Ireland
  • Served as acting Sherriff
  • Captured "Redhead" Finnegan
  • Sired a sizable brood
  • While serving under the Harrison administration he opposed the postmaster general and his creatures on public service reform
  • Cleaned the New York city's police, made night rounds in person, and enforced dry Sundays
  • Sundered the police connections with the underground
  • Was fearless when opposing machine politicians
  • Made ready the navy as acting navy chief for war
  • Was the first to officially propose the use of "flying machines" in naval operations
  • Commanded, in effect, one of the toughest, if not the toughest, regiments: the Roughriders
  • Survived the jungles of Cuba
  • Dodged bullets while leading the charge in San Juan Hill
  • Thought about swimming with sharks
  • Could, and actually did, knife a live puma
  • By the time he had reached the presidency, he had already read 20,000 books
  • His collected works meanwhile covered tens of volumes
  • Faced JP Morgan and his radioactive nose and lived to tell the tale
  • Could address a quarter of a million in one day without the aid of electronic equipment
  • Could shake 52 hands a minute for three hours straight
  • Survived a trolley smashing into his carriage with him inside with just minor injuries
  • Asked not to be anesthetized for a tumor surgery on his shin
  • Gave birth to the Teddy bear… well, of sorts
  • Brokered peace between Russia and Japan
  • He had his own call signal: glasses and teeth
  • Could wolf down, in quantity, almost anything
  • Went for a year-long African Safari
  • Most amazing of all, survived being shot point blank, by stopping the bullet with his ribs. He went on to deliver a speech for over 45 minutes, bleeding, before allowing to be taken to a hospital
  • Barely survived the exploration of the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle.
  • While there, swam in piranha waters. The rest of the neighborhood fauna didn't stop him from reading at night
  • Was also a renowned naturalist

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Nosferatu Vinyl by Waxwork records review

The first time I've appreciated cinematography (i.e. movies) as an art was when I watched an expert commentary for the 1922 Nosferatu on DVD. All the bits and images clicked in beautifully leaving me with a lasting impression and wanting for more. Fortunately, the entertainment industry has not disappointed in this respect and some Nosferatu's characteristics resurface from time to time. One of the most comprehensive is Kinski's 1970s remake which explored some possibilities. One of those is the addition of an inherent soundtrack by Popol Vuh.

By itself that music is both atmospheric and evocative and can stand on its own. When I gave it a few listens on spotify I knew that this music had to sound amazing on vinyl. It was a fortunate circumstance that not only the music existed for the format but that a new release from Waxwork records was available.

As with most of Waxwork's releases this one is pure eye candy. The new artwork is superb and presented in a gatefold fashion. There's an insert by the artist in which she explains her vision for the project. On the other side of this insert is the cover art in just a tad a smaller format than the cover. Presumably, and you can frame this instead of the whole album cover. The variant I received was that white marbled one which is absolutely the most beautiful vinyl I have set my eyes on. Keep in mind that my whole experience up until very recently have been my father's LPs which are uniformly black and some solid-colored ones here and there. The two vinyls on which the music is divided really look like marble. The inner sleeves are of black paper which is also a first for me. I'm sure that you metalheads have been getting this kind of merchandise for years now, but it's really something when you experience it for the first time. The center labels are also black with the track listings on one side and bat illustrations on the other. There's a bit of torn label near the punch holes that while undeserving, don't distract much.
Hype sticker

The pressing themselves for each LP are another matter. For a brand-new record is noticeably noisy on the first two sides with various clicks and hiss. These are all of small magnitude and certainly are not worrisome but they make you wonder about quality assurance. Due to the nature of the subject matter the clicks might even add some "character" to the output, but one would have expected less of them in this day and age. The last two sides sounded uniformly fine.

The only other drawback with this release is the difficulty of getting the inner sleeves into the outer as they do not seem to want to slide in easily and there is some risk of mangling that the thinner inner sleeve or damaging the insert. The album as a whole fits well in the the Groove Vinyl oversized plastic covers.

At the time of this writing it is out of stock but if you can get hold of it, I think it will be a great addition to your collection even more if you are a soundtrack aficionado. I will still be looking forward to Waxwork's future releases and hope that they finally iron out the kinks in the pressing process.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Babadook as a metaphor for sickness

A couple of Sundays ago I went for confession with a bit of a secondary motive. For some time now, my leg has been hurting and a few other complaints began to pile on. Since I would have the father all by myself in the confessional, I thought it would not be inappropriate to ask for his prayers when the confession was over. I did so and he did agree to add me to his prayers after ascertaining the nature of my illness, that it wasn't anything life-threatening or anything. He also gave me a bit of advice: do not clash with your illness, rather make it your friend.

Later, after some reflection I saw that this mirrors the final state of affairs in the Babadook. You may not be able to get rid of it, but you can get into some sort of understanding.

In horror movies, the last surviving would-be victim, manages to fight off the menacing evil power, at least for a time, but seldom, as far as I can recall, does she stop to confront it in equal terms. In the Babadook, the Amelia does so and surprisingly she isn't snuffed out as one would expect, but both accept the new state of affairs. She still doesn't like him, but that doesn't mean they can be partners.

In Catholicism there is such a thing as redemption by suffering where one chips in, however feebly or modestly, with redemption by offering one's suffering, taking one's cross, and offering it to God. In this way, I've come to the conclusion that one indeed can become friends with one's sickness. As with the Babadook, one doesn't have to like it, but if I way out is not forthcoming, not only does one do not strengthen it by fighting it (being anxious about it), but one can reap otherworldly benefits by its acceptance. Amelia at the end of the movie intimates to Samuel that in due time he would get to see what's in the basement. Likewise for us.

The fit isn't perfect but both sickness and Babadook touch so many common points that I thought to flag them.

If you would like to know more about redemption by suffering check out episode 11  (2/18/05) of the podcast Ignition on your favorite podcast catcher.
(I use Podcast Addict)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Poor man's voice web browsing for Windows

Now, if you read my post on voice recognition for your Linux virtual machine, there's no reason why you cannot take the same elements, sans the virtual machine, and have your own custom voice-recognition command center facility in native Windows.

Microsoft's own speech recognition is already there, free, and its "show numbers" feature surpasses anything that Dragon NaturallySpeaking has to offer (as far as I'm aware of; I'm still on version 11). However, for whatever reason, you may one day want to browse the web, or do whatever else, using your own commands. Glovepie can leverage the OS' speech module. Why not avail yourself of free tools? My offered solution might work for you.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Studying Chess Made Easy by Soltis book review

Thus, whatever phase of things human and divine you have apprehended, you will be wearied by the vast number of things to be answered and things to be learned. And in order that these manifold and mighty subjects may have free entertainment in your soul, you must remove therefrom all superfluous things.
Seneca, Letter to Lucilius 88

Of the Chess Life columns I used to read one of my least liked was that of GM Andrew Soltis. Probably because back then it was one of the few columns written in descriptive notation or something.  However, over the last few years I've found that he has brought out some pretty useful books to the market and now in FAN. Not being made of stone, I have bought some of these and have been quite pleased with them, the latest being Studying Chess Made Easy.

Its message in a nutshell: There must be a way to sort out all the chess material.
The problem is of course, too much of it, and too little time. To that effect, Soltis' tries to channel the reader's efforts to the areas were they'll count the most.

The title is a bit misleading, a more appropriate one would've been "Build your own study regime". Even he doesn't explicitly say so, Soltis gives pieces of a puzzle that can be rearranged in a myriad of ways according to the reader's current necessities and time constraints. Accordingly, the reader must provide her own input and figure out by herself what to tackle at any given time. Once, solved the how to, is the meat of the book.

For each phase of the game he presents the problems to study and gives advice on how to get the most the player's study time in improvement. He illustrates most points with  game fragments (that break the flow of the argument IMO). The "easy" part which the title alludes to is the less material one has to go through. However, though good, some of his recommended improvement exercises demand dedication from the student.

The software front might be the weakest area of the book. Soltis does give some advice on how to make better use of it, but doesn't go deep into it (then again, maybe it also another "unnecessary") for improvement. There is also no how to go over your games.

Now, Soltis writes from the point of view of an insider. From his bibliography one can gather he is well acquainted with the Soviet teaching methods and has along career as a writer. However , there's no explicit guarantee that what he recommends will work. No study backs what he says, meaning one is putting his faith on his words alone. There have been studies made by outsiders here and there on learning and chess, but none of their results are incorporated here. So one has to take this in account and perhaps adapt accordingly.

Also, it is not a one stop shop. Other books and material will have to be read and games to be played, but all according to an overarching approach. Might not be the ultimate solution, but as it goes, looks close and since it is readily available, why not?

Recommended for the ambitious 1400 elo and up to master.

Check out another Soltis review here

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows movie review

Experience often tells us that sequels are always inferior to the originals. The Blair Witch: The Book of Shadows is often highlighted as evidence and as such it is generally despised; ratings at the IMDB and other like sites readily reflect that.

However, I don't share those beliefs. I liked it when it first came out and re-watching it the other day has confirmed my conviction that, as Jeff would put it, the naysayers only say nay.

There are two things here that work against BoS: its fundamental different approach to the telling of the story and that it doesn't give any more info on what happened to Heather's group. On the first front, the radical shift places this second installment away from the first movie, which apparently was enough of a turn-off for many. The second reason is even more insidious as we bought our tickets in search for answers, but we ended up more confused than before.

However, once we accept that the mysteries will not be solved this time around and that this movie is not an extension of the first, we end up with an acceptable fun movie that, despite the factors against it, it is very respectful to the mythology set in the original. Watching it, thus, with fresh eyes there are many, many things to like.

I'll leave you with just two things to look for for the next time you watch it. The first one is the characters. Of the trilogy, the ones from The Book of Shadows are the ones that are given the most depth on the are way more interesting than even the ones from Blair Witch (2016). Despite the messing up by the producing company, we get a good share from what the director originally intended. Josh and Kim, Kim and Josh (and to some extent Erica) make this movie. The second reason to watch is the secret message Easter egg hunt named "The Secret of Esrever". There is a secret message interspersed throughout the movie and the hints are found in the DVD extras. Most of them are really, really hard, but if you are up to the challenge, you'll have lots of fun. Oh, lest I forget, there's even a bigger bonus and that's The Shadow of the Blair Witch mockumentary that ties in to this movie. I think it can be found on your regular video sites along with the Burkittsville Seven which is also a must-watch (don't know about their copyright status though). Both are a very meaty addition to the mythology that just can't be missed.

On the whole, BOS has been widely lambasted, but If this movie had come out without any previous movie to compare it to, it would have been way more successful in its appreciation.

Worth a watch this Halloween